When the going gets tough, you may find yourself turning to food to feel better. We’ve all found ourselves engaging in emotional eating – using food to soothe ourselves. Eating can be a way to manage stress or dampen uncomfortable feelings (like loneliness, anxiety, anger, or sadness). Food can even be a way to turn up the volume on pleasant emotions like happiness or comfort.
In the short term, it works pretty well. Your mind latches on to the idea that a certain food will make you feel better, you eat the food, and you feel soothed or relieved. Your brain learns that you can get a quick fix. But, as you’ve probably noticed, the relief doesn’t last. You still feel stressed out about work, and now you have a second problem: you feel bad about yourself for eating all that ice cream.
People sometimes talk about food as a way to satisfy emotional hunger, as if a gnawing feeling of sadness is a void that we can fill with cookies or chips or chicken or any food. And in a sense, that is true. But emotional eating isn’t just about filling some metaphorical emptiness inside. It’s driven by a survival instinct deep in the human brain.
3 Tips for dealing with Emotional Eating?
Understanding the connection between emotions and overeating opens up a whole world of new possibilities. You can learn to deal with feelings in a way that doesn’t involve food. Here are 3 steps you can take to overcome emotional eating:
- Identify your emotions. The first step is to put a name to what you’re feeling. After that terrible day at work, you might be feeling angry. More specifically, you’re feeling resentment (because your coworker should have gotten the assignment, not you) and frustration (because you don’t have the data you’ll need to finish the report). Your body will give you clues to your emotions.
- Accept your feelings and be willing to express them. Don’t fight your emotions. Just let them be. Tell yourself, “It’s okay to feel angry. Anyone would, under these circumstances.” It can also be helpful to talk over your feelings with a supportive friend.
- Choose how you’ll soothe yourself. The part of your brain that associates food with survival is rather primitive. Luckily, there are other parts of the brain – notably the prefrontal cortex – that are capable of taking a broader, more rational perspective. With practice, you can notice that you’re about to overeat for emotional reasons. Then you can use your “higher brain” to decide that you’ll soothe your emotions by calling a friend, going for a walk, or taking a hot bath instead.
Tips can be helpful to get you started in thinking about your eating behaviors in a different way. However, for many people, emotional eating has become something they’ve done for so long that it’s difficult to overcome without support.
It’s also true that emotional eating may be the result of childhood trauma, abuse or neglect and you may not even be aware of how what happened to you has led to your current food and body image issues.
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